Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Big Brother

My family has never been known for its subtlety and decorum.  We are a loud, fun-loving, and at times obnoxious group.  An Alec Baldwin look-alike, my brother Tim is tall and imposing, and perhaps one of the most opinionated of our clan. 

Jeff's First Worthington Family Reunion, 1996
Shortly after Jeff and I were engaged in 1996, I took him with me to the Worthington Family Reunion, held every three years at the Jersey Shore.  Close to one hundred descendents of my maternal great grandparents—four generations worth—take over cheap motels and rental homes in Avalon and Stone Harbor for a week of reminiscing, drinking, punning, gossiping, eating, laughing, and arguing over the most inane details of times gone by.  We come from all over the country—California, Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Michigan—and join with a handful of New Jersey holdouts “down the shore.” 

On the third day of the reunion, my brother and I were bobbing up and down in the waves thirty yards off the shoreline. “Why is it I had to hear that you’re freakin' engaged from cousin Bonnie?” Tim said, his tone equal parts flippancy and irritation. 

I tried to come up with something witty to deflect my brother’s underlying anger, but my mind went blank.  Why hadn’t I told him? I wondered.  We were sharing a rental home for the week.  I’d had plenty of opportunity to make an announcement, or to tell him in private. I could’ve simply introduced Jeff as my fiancĂ© when we’d arrived at the reunion two nights ago. Better yet, I could’ve called Tim after I'd gotten engaged two weeks earlier.

It’s not that I didn’t care about my brother being privy to the big news. On some level, perhaps I cared too much.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, agreeing to spend my life with Jeff meant I was replacing Tim as the most important man in my life, a title he had held, despite our outward displays of banter, since our father’s death when I was six, my brother nine.

Ever since my first real boyfriend came on the scene in tenth grade, Tim had had something to say about my love life.  When he walked in my bedroom one morning to discover that Paul had spent the night due to heavy snowstorms, he took the opportunity to threaten him.  Just remember—that’s my little sister!  Paul didn’t try to get to the next base for weeks. When Tim came home from college and found out I had recently started dating a guy he once played soccer against, he said, “Joe Beatty?  What a douche bag!” I broke up with Joe a week later. As a freshman in college I started dating Dave, five years my senior and working construction.  When I transferred schools at Dave’s request and moved in with him, Tim was furious, but Mom forbade him to intercede, so instead he bought me a cake stand for Christmas.

“A cake stand?” I asked him once I’d unwrapped his gift.  “Isn’t this something you give to married people?”

“That’s my point!” Tim shouted across the crumbled gift wrap, half glasses of orange juice, and wadded up red and green Hershey’s Kiss foils that covered the floor my parents’ living room.  “You’re acting like you’re goddamned married!”  I broke up with Dave before the winter break was through.

It’s not as if Tim hated every guy I ever dated.  Bob passed the test easily, Jim eventually.  But Jeff?  Jeff was different.  As far as I was concerned, I needed no approval from Tim when it came to Jeff.  He was not a guy I was "dating."  He was the man I was committing to spend my life with, big brother approval or no big brother approval.

“Sorry,” I said to Tim.  “I should’ve told you myself.”  No sarcasm.  No deflection with humor.  

My brother and I were quiet, both in our own minds, treading water over rolling waves in the salty Atlantic at dusk. Breaking the silence, Tim finally said, “I like him. Seems like a good guy.”

“He is,” I said. 

And with that the title was passed. 

Lauren and Her Big Bro on Tim's Wedding Day, 2010

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Or you can download the entire e-book on Kindle here.  Happy reading!  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Smile On, Katy!

Katy Stowe had the world by the tail. She was smart, popular, and just five days away from her high school graduation. With her straight-A report cards and various student leadership positions, the energetic teen had applied to and been accepted at Auburn University, where she would attend in the fall. 

And then, life changed.

I met Katy in the summer of 2003 while I was giving a series of talks about volunteer blood donation to elementary and high school kids in Alabama. She had been assigned to introduce me to each audience during a two-day visit with the American Red Cross. The first thing I noticed about her – now in her mid-20s – was her smile. The obvious love of life that came through that broad Julia Roberts grin was infectious, and I found myself smiling back at her even before we were introduced.

Secondary to her smile were the apparent signs of lingering health issues: the slow movements, the slight drag of her right foot, the hairless, waxy-looking scars above her neckline and below the short sleeves of her shirt, – suggestive of the type of adversity most of us will never encounter. Curiosity got the best of me and, between talks, I asked Katy about the circumstances that led to her scarring. Without hesitation, she shared the details of her near-miss with death eight years earlier: the car wreck on a rural road, the flames bursting through the floorboards, the jammed door locks that trapped her in the car, and her miraculous escape – despite having several broken ribs, a broken elbow and a lacerated kidney – through a half-open window.

Downplaying any suggestion of heroics on her part, she told me about the years of physical therapy, the dozens of post-hospitalization surgeries that took place to release built up scar tissue, and the numerous blood transfusions she had received – all a result of having been severely burned over more than 60 percent of her body. 

“The toughest part,” she admitted, “was that it felt like all my friends from high school had moved on with their perfect lives while I was struggling just to feel normal again.”

With patience, determination, and time, Katy had overcome the physical and emotional challenges of her accident and reclaimed her life. Graduating with honors from Auburn, she then chose to pursue a career that involved saving lives through blood donation, much in the same way her own had been saved.

I looked up to see the next group of high-school aged students filing into the auditorium for my talk. I looked back at Katy and knew that the story of how she came to be a blood recipient at an age when life was supposed to be full of promise would be much more effective than my own story of a “middle-aged” woman who almost died giving birth. I asked her if she would allow me to introduce her and if she would then share her own story with this audience. She demurred, but consented.

After making brief introductory remarks, I sat down as Katy limped out in front of the students. I watched the faces in the crowd shift from studied boredom – that look that only a 16-year-old on a field trip can master – to curiosity, as they scrutinized every exposed scar on Katy’s arms and neck. And then there was that smile, which held their attention as Katy explained that life doesn’t always deliver on its promises, but that a small group of caring individuals -- in her case, blood donors -- are often capable of making up the difference.

Keep smiling, Katy!

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Day Dad Died

April 28, 1968.
I’m so excited I can hardly stand it.  Not even this gross water sprout hairdo—a tight ponytail Mom has centered on the top of my head—can ruin my mood.  I’m wearing my favorite dress, the white hand-me-down from Pam Eldridge, who lives down the street.  It has a big fluffy skirt, tiny black roses all over, and it even ties in the back with a big bow.  I have my favorite storybook, Hansel and Gretel, all ready to go.  Santa gave it to me this past Christmas.  It’s really big. 
Today is going to be great!  I’m going with my best friend, Debbie, to visit her aunt, who lives in Maryland.  Her mom is driving.  I’ve never been allowed to go on a trip like this without my parents going too.  It’s just for a day, but still.  I don’t think the other kids in my kindergarten class have been allowed to go away without their parents.

Debbie’s mom blows the horn of her light blue car and I’m flying through the front door of our house before Mom can remind me to use good manners.  I yell good-bye to her as I go.  (Dad left earlier this morning. He likes to fly his small airplane on the weekends, so he's already hanging out with his buddies at the local airport.) 
We drive for two and a half hours, eating snacks in the car and pretending to read the words that go with the pictures in my book.  Finally we arrive at the University of Maryland, where Debbie’s aunt is a student.  The whole day is amazing!  We walk around campus among all the grown ups.  We eat at the university cafeteria where the college students eat.  We visit Debbie’s aunt’s apartment and play with the stuffed animals on her bed.  My favorite is the five-foot long lime green snake.  Debbie and I slap each other with the snake, his silly red felt tongue hanging out of his mouth as his head whacks our bodies.
The ride home that evening seems to take a long time. When Debbie’s mom drops me off outside our home, I’m both exhausted and exhilarated. I burst into the house ready to share all the details of my adventures with Mom and Dad.  And then I freeze. 
Uh-oh. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m in trouble.  Why else would Mom be waiting for me in the living room with that weird look on her face, sort of mad, sort of sad, but also sort of confused?

But why are her friends here? There’s Nancy, who lives around the corner from us.  And Evelyn, who lives right down the street (she’s the mother of Pam, who gave me this great dress).  And Susan, Mom’s best friend, who is single and spends a lot of time with our family.  They’re all sitting quietly around our small living room, Mom in the old orange wingback chair.  None of this makes any sense to me, but one thing is certain: I’m in trouble.  I can see it in Mom’s face.  I can hear it in the uncomfortable silence of the room.

“Lauren, would you come into the kitchen with me for a minute?” Mom says.  It’s more a statement than a question.  I quietly follow her.  When we round the corner to the kitchen, she turns to me.

“Your father had an accident while flying his plane today.” Her voice is calm, almost flat. “Daddy is dead, Lauren.  Do you understand what that means?” 
“Yes,” I lie.  “Can I go upstairs now?”
I walk in a daze to my brother’s room, where I find my three siblings staring blankly at the television screen.  I sit down and stare with them.  None of us says a word.  My adventures in Maryland are already forgotten.

* * *

Not until my late 20s do I begin to understand the details surrounding my father’s death, how he’d left early to spend the morning at the small rural airport nearby, where I suspect he liked to escape the weekday stresses of being a blue-collar sole provider for a family of six.  Another pilot had asked the men in the waiting area—my father among them—if anyone was willing to help him practice his take-off and landing maneuvers.  Though not fully-licensed, this man had enough instruction hours under his belt to fly without a certified instructor as long as there was a licensed pilot in the plane with him.  Dad agreed. 

During his first landing attempt, the pilot hit some telephone wires and crashed the plane.  My father suffered severe internal injuries and was bleeding profusely.  When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, Dad was pronounced DOA—Dead On Arrival.  He’d recently celebrated his thirty-second birthday.

It’s now been 43 years, Dad, but you’re still in my thoughts, still a part of who I am and who I’m yet to become. Happy Father’s Day.
Supple Weidner Ward
March 5, 1936 – April 28,1968

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Lighten Up!

Years ago, I spent an evening with a grown man dressed in spandex tights, dark glasses, and a big bulbous red outfit that was allegedly a blood drop. Thankfully, it was not a date.

His name was Elmer, and he was pushing 90 at the time. His jokes were bad and his singing worse. He was part of the “entertainment” at a blood center event in Michigan at which I was giving the keynote address. I like to think of myself as an engaging speaker but, truly, it was Elmer who stole the show that night.

For decades, Elmer had been the perfect example of a “loyal” blood donor. Every eight weeks he was at the blood center rolling up his sleeve. When he turned 87, he began taking medication that permanently deferred him from donating. And that’s when Elmer morphed into his new role as the joke-telling, hand-holding, off-key-singing blood drop that showed up at blood drives to help ease the tension for first-time donors by sharing a laugh with them. Can you imagine any first-time donor being nervous once they laid eyes on him? At times, the joke was on Elmer: More often than not, people mistook him for a polyp!

In my work with blood centers over the years, I’ve seen some fairly bizarre stuff – and by bizarre, I mean fun! I’ve seen grown adults shouting out their financial pledges just to see a colleague get shaved. I watched a blood center CEO take a pie in the face for the sake of employee morale (my own hand might’ve been on the pie tin at the time). I’ve seen a blood drive recruiter wear more red at one time than should be legal (you know who you are, Dan). I’ve witnessed collections staff forming instantaneous human pyramids and blood recipients dressing as bloodhounds and howling their way around town on scavenger hunts. And two weeks ago at the Association of Donor Recruitment Professionals’ meeting, I saw Wayne’s World mullets and teased-out Cyndi Lauper hair, parachute pants, and off-the-shoulder new wave tunics being sported by a group of crazed blood banking professionals on a jam-packed dance floor. All this “bizarre-ity” adds up to a heck of a lot of fun.

Let’s face it: Working to save lives through blood transfusion is serious business. Those who work in blood banking have all met the patient with a remarkable medical story involving massive amounts of blood. Or the doctor working in a rural community who ran short on O-neg. Or the parent who lost a child after years of cancer treatments involving regular transfusions. Many have experienced the scare of a severe blood shortage, or the challenge of managing donor turnout after a horrific event like the Virginia Tech shootings, 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina.

All too often, those of us who work in "life or death" situations--whether it's blood banking or critical care in the hospital or disaster relief--feel the weight of our responsibility on a regular basis, and we lose touch with the lighter side of our personalities. After all, patients are depending on us, so we must take our work seriously.

But that doesn’t mean we must always take ourselves seriously. So I say: Lighten up! That, and impose an age limit on wearing spandex.

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!